Health & Science

New guidelines for cholesterol drugs; Drones probe the Atlantic; Depression speeds up aging; How addiction affects offspring

New guidelines for cholesterol drugs

The nation’s leading heart specialists have dramatically shifted their thinking on when doctors should prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs. New guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology abandon the use of a person’s cholesterol level as the main trigger for prescribing statins and, instead, focus on broader risk factors—an approach that could double the number of American candidates for the drugs to roughly 70 million. “The new guidelines will treat better and smarter, focusing on populations most likely to benefit,” University of North Carolina cardiologist Sidney Smith tells Following a four-year review of evidence, the research team concluded that statins would be most effective if used by people with high-risk factors for heart attacks and strokes, not to bring down levels of harmful cholesterol, known as LDL, to a specific target. Patients derive comfort from knowing they’ve hit that LDL target, doctors said, but the number is largely arbitrary. The real value of statins is that they reduce the buildup of waxy cholesterol in the arteries. “Statins treat risk, not only cholesterol,” said Neil Stone, a Northwestern University cardiologist who helped craft the new guidelines. Now, statins will be used to reduce the risk of stroke as well as heart disease. Some doctors, however, are already questioning the new guidelines, saying they overstate risk and will lead to unnecessary statin use.

Drones probe the Atlantic

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To get a fuller picture of what’s going on deep in the vast Atlantic Ocean, 16 American and Canadian research groups are deploying a fleet of 15 underwater drones in an ambitious survey project called Gliderpalooza. The battery-powered gliders, launched across the Eastern Seaboard from Nova Scotia to Georgia, are diving in slow, swooping curves for a month to capture information about the ocean’s temperature, currents, and other features at depths of up to 650 feet. The data collected from each vessel will then be combined to shed light on everything from deepwater currents to migrating fish. “We know that our ocean has changed quite a bit over the last 20 years, but we have so little data, it’s hard to even start unraveling what the drivers of that change are,” Rutgers University ocean scientist Oscar Schofield tells The New York Times. Among the most pressing areas of inquiry is the seasonal “cold pool,” a body of frigid water that gathers along the edge of the Northeast Continental Shelf. Scientists suspect how that cold reservoir interacts with warmer water could be an important factor in determining the strength of destructive storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Depression speeds up aging

Major depression is not only psychologically crippling but can also age a person’s body on a cellular level. That’s the conclusion of a new study that examined blood samples from more than 2,400 people with and without depression. Researchers at the Free University of Amsterdam measured the length of telomeres, the small caps at the ends of chromosomes that protect a cell’s DNA and shorten each time a cell divides, making them a useful marker of aging. The scientists found that people who had been depressed at any point in time had significantly shorter telomeres than people who had never been depressed. The average degradation—apparent even after taking lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking into account—amounted to four to six years of additional aging. “Psychological distress, as experienced by depressed persons, has a large, detrimental impact on the ‘wear and tear’ of a person’s body, resulting in accelerated biological aging,” researcher Josine Verhoeven tells An important next question is whether this cellular aging can be reversed; past studies have demonstrated that a healthier diet, exercise, and stress management may lengthen telomeres.

How addiction affects offspring

When laboratory rats abuse cocaine, they produce offspring that are less susceptible to addiction, according to the Los Angeles Times. This surprising genetic twist emerged from a study done at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, which found that male pups with cocaine-addicted fathers were less likely to want the drug and more resistant to its effects. By contrast, rats sired by males that had never used cocaine responded to repeated doses of the drug with an escalating frenzy of movement known to foretell addiction. The findings were echoed on the neurological level, where a male parent’s cocaine use determined whether the region of the pup’s brain involved in addictive behaviors lit up with an electrical current. Scientists say the study adds to a growing body of evidence that behavior and environmental circumstances can switch the expression of genes on and off. The process, called epigenetics, is blurring the once stark line between nature and nurture. Researchers said the study “could be incredibly important in developing treatments for addiction.’’

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